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My Sonoma Valley staycation



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After Mackay dropped us back off at our hotel, we had a little downtown before dinner. I used my time wisely. I took a nap. I wanted to be refreshed before eating at one my favorite restaurants, the Glen Ellen Star. I reviewed the restaurant shortly after it opened about three years ago. I loved it then and love it now. Little has changed, which I take as evidence of the strength of chef-owner Ari Weiswasser's vision: a small but wonderfully executed menu of locally sourced, wood roasted vegetables and meat and fish, thin crust pizzas, great salads and reasonably priced local wines.

The bar seating around the tiny, open kitchen and intimate dining room make it feel like you're dining in someone's house. It's really a perfect wine country restaurant, welcoming, casually sophisticated and dependably delicious. On this visit and ones previous we were waited on by Tom Rice, a consummate pro in a land of amateurs. He's got a charming manner, a wide smile and he knows the menu as if he created the dishes himself. He and Weiswasser make the restaurant the little gem that it is.

Back at MacArthur Park feeling full and happy, we slipped into the hot tub for soak under a starry sky. In our comfortable room, I found myself wishing I could transport the place with its soaking tub, fireplace and outdoor shower back home, but then I wouldn't leave home. That night I slept as if I'd been shot with a tranquilizer dart.

The first order of business the next morning was breakfast. Lots of hotels offer complimentary continental breakfast, but I've come to be wary of them since they're usually little more than store-bought pastries, corn flakes and out-of-season fruit. You get what you pay for, right? MacArthur Place offers something altogether different: house-baked muffins and pastries, excellent granola, chia seed and yogurt muesli, bagels with salmon-cream cheese spread, local hardboiled eggs, and fresh (albeit out-of-season) fruit.

Sunday was our last day and the agenda wasn't too demanding: massage, lunch and another winetasting appointment. I was beginning to get the hang of this staycation stuff.

Lunch was a quick one at Maya, our one trip to the Sonoma Plaza. The stone-walled restaurant boasts a tequila list 150 bottles deep. But I came for food not shots. We were running late so we unfortunately had to wolf down a bowl of excellent tortilla soup, a so-so caesar salad and an enjoyable pair of tlacoyos, pockets of lightly fried masa filled with mole verde and chicken. I wish we had more time to enjoy it, but we were late for our massage back the hotel.

The longest massage I've ever had was a 15 minutes in a chair in my office. Nice, for sure, but I was relishing the thought of 60 minutes. After slipping on a robe and pair of sandals, we were escorted into separate rooms filled with ethereal New Age music and pleasantly perfumed air. I was in for an aromatherapy massage. I was instructed to select an aroma from a flight of bottles. I chose eucalyptus. It's rejuvenating, my masseuse told me. And who doesn't want to feel rejuvenated? In truth, when my time was up and the massage was over I felt more calm and Zenned out than rejuvenated, and that was fine by me. I lingered on the warmed massage table to savor my serene state of mind and body.

VISTA POINT The view from Hamel Family Winery is stunning. And the wine is pretty great, too.
  • VISTA POINT The view from Hamel Family Winery is stunning. And the wine is pretty great, too.

Thoroughly unstressed, we headed to our last stop, Hamel Family Wines. I heard a few things about this new winery between Sonoma and Glen Ellen. I heard they threw an over-the-top rager of an opening party last year. I heard the place oozed money. And I heard the owners had a thing for badgers. But I hadn't heard much about their wines.

Once we were buzzed in (appointment only), we drove up a long driveway to the modern looking "estate house" and entered another world—one of wealth, impeccable taste and, to my pleasant surprise, a real commitment to the environment.

Water from the winery is used to wash out tanks is collected in a pond where it's used for irrigation. The soil excavated from the newly opened 12,000-foot cave (yep, they've got one too) was used to created rammed-earth walls for the tasting room and administrative office that help reduce the building's energy use. The grapes are certified organic and cover crops run between the vines. Biodynamic certification is in the works.

"We're creating our own ecosystem on this property," says Hamel's ebullient "wine ambassador" India King.

The tasting room ("room" really doesn't do it justice—how about "hospitality center"?) and expansive decks and grounds, water features and chairs that all orient you to the rolling vineyards, across the valley and to Sonoma Mountain in the background. It's positively stunning. It's the most beautiful winery I've ever seen, hands down. King and director of hospitality Dawn Agnew clearly enjoy working here, and their enthusiasm shows.

How's the wine? Like everything else here, it's exceptionally fine. Tasting our way through five wines, each exhibits enough fruit and accessibility to satisfy California palates but with sufficient restraint and finesse to please those with a more European sensibility. I'd given up on Zinfandel because more often than not it's got the subtlety of blackberry-flavored jelly, but Hamel's 2012 estate Zin displays a seductive delicacy backed by muscular tannins. The flagship 2010 Hamel Family Ranch Bordeaux blend is a gorgeous age-worthy wine of power and grace that's eminently drinkable right now.

This is clearly a money-is-no-object winery, but every detail from the lighting of the cave, the leather-covered doors in the "reserve room," and the individually folded terrycloth hand towels in the bathroom reflect the owners' style and sensibility.

Next time you've got family in from out of town, skip Alcatraz and take them here. Better yet, don't wait for them and take a staycation of your own.

Though our trip was only 36 hours, heading back home as the hazy winter sun set over Sonoma Mountain, I felt like I had truly been away in spite of the short distance we'd traveled.


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